Gov. Reynolds dismissed another warning from UI researchers before relaxing COVID-19 restrictions statewide

Map showing the 22 counties where COVID-19 restrictions remained in effect largely in full for an additional two weeks, when select businesses reopened in the rest of the state on May 1. — Office of Gov. Kim Reynolds

In a report to the Iowa Department of Public Health dated May 4, a team of researchers from the University of Iowa College of Public Health said there was “strong evidence” the COVID-19 restrictions in place prior to May 1 had “slowed the spread of the infection in Iowa,” but couldn’t show that they had been “sufficient to prevent uncontained spread.”

The report said the decision to relax restrictions in 77 counties starting May 1 “is expected to slow the observed decline” in the virus’s spread. “The full effects of reopening are not expected to be observed for several weeks,” the report said.

The governor’s office received the report on May 5. The following day, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced she was relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in the state’s other 22 counties.

It’s not the first time Reynolds has ignored a warning from the College of Public Health research team. She received their first report, which warned if restrictions in the state were relaxed “a second wave of infections is likely,” days before she announced on April 27 that restrictions would be lifted in 77 counties.

During the first month of COVID-19 spread in Iowa, IDPH had no Iowa-specific models of the virus’s spread. On April 7, the department signed a contract with the College of Public Health to have its experts produce epidemiological models. So far, that team has submitted three reports, and a final report is still being prepared.

The governor’s office released the most recent report, along with another College of Public Health report dated April 29, after multiple requests from the Des Moines Register. The release happened late Friday afternoon, hours after the governor’s Friday press conference.

Reynolds was asked at her Friday press conference if she had consulted any models, from the College of Public Health or other sources, about how COVID-19 may spread as restrictions in the state are relaxed.

“We’re taking a look at a lot of different data,” the governor replied. “And I want to thank the University of Iowa and the public health for their input into the process.”

Reynolds said she was relying on “real-time data” produced by Test Iowa and other testing done in the state to make her decisions.

Test Iowa, and other state testing efforts, have focused on hotspots where increases in infections have already been reported. The May 4 report emphasizes those hotspots are not the only areas where the virus’s spread hasn’t been contained.

“Importantly, even though much of the recent spread in Iowa has been attributed to clusters (e.g., workplaces, long term care facilities), continued increase in community spread is expected ,” the researchers said. That community spread was expected to occur even if all the restrictions had been left in place.

In the May 4 report, the researchers noted the number of COVID-19 deaths reported in Iowa is consistent with the projections in the first report they delivered to the state. According to their projections, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Iowa will likely be over 700 by the end of May.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

On Saturday, IDPH reported another 10 Iowans have died from COVID-19. Among the deceased was a resident of Linn County. The state’s current death toll from the virus now stands at 346.

IDPH also reported another 279 people have tested positive for COVID-19, including 10 residents of Linn County and two residents of Johnson County. The newly reported cases bring the state’s total to 14,328.

Another outbreak in a long-term-care facility was reported by IDPH on Saturday, bringing the total number of outbreaks at those facilities to 36.

Cases of COVID-19 have also been reported at another meat processing plant. This week, Seaboard Triumph Foods said that 59 workers at its Sioux City pork processing plant have tested positive for the virus. One worker is known to have died from COVID-19.

Cases of COVID-19 have now been reported at 11 of the state’s 18 meat processing plants. But IDPH only identifies cases at a plant — or any other business — if those cases meet its definition of an outbreak. For a business to have outbreak IDPH will publicly report, 10 percent of its workforce at a single location where COVID-19 is likely to spread must either test positive for the virus or have been in contact with individuals who have tested positive. The same number of workers being absent due to illness also satisfies the definition.

So far, IDPH has only recognized four outbreaks at meat processing plants.

Seaboard Triumph Food employs 2,400 people at its Sioux City plant. Another 181 workers would have to test positive for COVID-19 for IDPH to declare the plant has an outbreak.